2015 Tesla Model S 70D in new Ocean Blue colorEnlarge Photo
Even though the Tesla Model S has retained its same basic shape since it went on sale in 2012, what's going on under the hood has been anything but stagnant.
The automaker's over-the-air updates for the electric car have put the old guard on notice: People expect their cars to act like the computers and phones sitting on their desks and in their pockets. That means updates and new features—constantly.
Mostly, Tesla has done that. With the major exception of a hardware changeover in early 2017, Tesla owners have had new features unlocked or refined, new interfaces implemented, and safety improvements come to their cars—sometimes without setting foot in a service center.
That's because all owners of a Tesla Model S car get those software upgrades automatically, over the air, for free. Try doing that with your new wiper-blade defroster.
Virtually every aspect of Model S operation, from the climate control system to the suspension, is controlled by software. "A computer on wheels," some have called it.
That software, of course, can be updated. The Model S is unique among cars in that it can be reprogrammed remotely from the factory over its 3G or wi-fi network. Since the Model S first hit the streets in June 2012, there have been a number of major software updates—on average, one every few months.
2014 Tesla Model S in ChinaEnlarge Photo
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published in June 2014; we have now updated it to reflect additional Model S software updates from that date through May 2018. The new material is at the end of the article.]
As a Model S owner, I can testify that the cumulative effect has been to significantly improve the car.
I've come to look forward to those mornings where I'm greeted by a surprise message on the 17-inch touch screen: A new software update is available; would I like to download it now, or schedule it for later?
To download the new software, the Model S must be in "Park" for about two hours, so I typically agree to the car's default suggestion of a download at 2 am the next morning.
First new features
The software update program kicked off in October 2012, after just a few hundred Model S cars had been built.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to pin down the precise timing of many of the various software updates.
There were often long lags between the time when the first and last cars in the fleet were updated. Many sub-versions were issued that had only trivial changes from previous versions—and not all versions were sent to all cars.
2014 Tesla Model SEnlarge Photo
Here, then, is a rough chronology, with approximate dates, of the various Model S software upgrades over the past two years:
After explaining how the over-the-air software update process worked, that first October 2012 update (actually three separate updates dated the same day) introduced several new features. Among them:
*Supercharging. The first Superchargers were set to open two months later; the update enabled the on-board Supercharging software.
*Driver profile. Different drivers could now store into memory their preferences for seat, mirror, and steering-wheel positions, along with preferred settings for lights, locks, maps, and display formats.
*Creep Mode. This new feature mimicked the slight forward motion of a standard car when idling, and could be toggled on or off by drivers.
*Lower Rated Range. Based on a newer, tougher EPA range standard, the new algorithm reduced the typical full-charge "rated range" readout from 300 miles to 265 miles. The new "rated range" was simply more realistic, although the actual range of the car remained unchanged.
Other minor updates included a quicker "wake-up" on entry and various improvements to the GPS map.
A couple of months later, with production finally starting to ramp up in earnest, software update 4.0 introduced a bundle of new features. Among them:
*More aggressive throttle response. Which just added to the car's embarrassment of riches, in terms of sheer performance.
*Voice Command for Audio, Navigation, and Phone
*Sleep Mode. To reduce the power drain from the battery, computers and displays would be powered down when the car was off.
Additional tweaks made it possible to control the fan or sunroof via the thumb-wheel on the steering wheel; make calls from the GPS map, and access music from a USB drive.